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Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

I’ve been looking forward to reading Raymond Chandler for a long long time — so long, in fact, that I almost forgot I was looking forward to reading him.  Over a year ago I asked my wife to get me The Big Sleep (1939) for my birthday.  The problem was that I also asked for a few other books, and they were the ones I chose to read first.  By the time I’d finished them, other books fell into line . . . well, you’ve all been there.  The shocking thing is that I almost didn’t finish reading it this time around.  I picked it up and read the first twenty pages and enjoyed them quite a bit, but not enough to make other books less appealing.  It lost out to some others again.  Finally I said enough was enough and finished the bugger off.  It was worth the toil. 

The-Big-Sleep

Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective, is so entrenched in our culture that I was nervous about reading his first incarnation as it refined hardboiled fiction.  What if the mimicry is better than the original?  The cynicism and dryness were very familiar, but (as is often the case) the original still shines through, even if it is misogynist and anti-homosexual.  From early in the novel, here’s a typical show of flippancy as Marlowe overstates metaphor and understates his cynicism:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.  The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere.  I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.  He didn’t seem to be really trying.

Marlowe has arrived at the mansion of millionaire General Sternwood.  There are many visible problems at the mansion but the General wants Marlowe to chase after only one: Arthur Geiger has been blackmailing Carmen, one of the General’s two daughters.  Marlowe says clear things up discreetly.  On his way out, Marlowe runs into Vivian, the General’s other daughter.  She assumes that the General asked Marlowe to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Terence Regan. 

All of this built up to a nice and fairly straightforward story — at first, at least.  In fact, things were working out so well for Marlowe that I began to get annoyed with the plot structure and figured the book was a classic merely because it was Chandler’s first book and our first introduction to Marlowe — surely the later books make up for the debt owed by the first.  I have to say I was wrong though.  Around the half-way point (and it wasn’t a struggle to get there, really) the book transforms, Marlowe’s cynicism becomes understandable.  Marlowe has basically solved the case for General Sternwood, and he has no interest in the disappearance of Regan – so he says, anyway.  However, by this point several people have died, and while Marlowe is no longer certain he wants to figure out why, he can’t help it, he’s enmeshed in the downfall.

Chandler’s ability with language shines through at this point too.  Though Marlowe continues to narrate the story in his hard manner, he discloses the terror he feels.  In fact, his hard manner almost makes the disclosures more intimate:

It was raining hard again.  I walked into it with the heavy drops slapping my face.  When one of them touched my tongue I knew that my mouth was open and the ache at the side of my jaws told me it was open wide and strained back, mimicking the rictus of death carved upon the face of Harry Jones.

It’s a great book because not only does the case start to fall apart but also the very structure of the book begins to contort and become uncertain and opaque.  While some have criticized it for this, I found the technique fascinating (I’m assuming Chandler threw the plot away on purpose, though who can say?  He was later shocked to discover, when questioned, that he didn’t know who killed one of the characters).  When the the plot line no longer was ticking away predictably, when Marlowe’s character started evolving from the cynical professional to the shuddering man who knew too much – not about the case, but about life — I was wide awake.

18 thoughts on “Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

  1. cbjames says:

    I agree with about the book taking off once the plot begins to unravel. That’s when Chandler starts to pull ahead of the pack. Few writers can descend into madness as well.

  2. Chandler’s one of my favourite writers actually Trevor, good to see him being reviewed. Oddly enough, I’ve been planning to rebuy these, and in precisely the imprint you’ve got pictured here. There weren’t any problems with it physically were there, before I make that purchase?

    Chandler has I think a real knack for prose, it’s the language one reads him for, the style. Plots were never his strength. Essentially, Chandler had the prose, Hammett the plots and Spillane the action, though that’s a bit unfair to Hammett and Spillane (I wouldn’t recommend Spillane to you by the way).

    Still, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s in some senses an ur-novel, in that much that is now cliched actually derives from this. The essentially Chivalrous nature of Marlowe, in that around him pretty much everyone is venal, he’s the only person driven by any form of moral code. That’s the essence, for me, of what separates hardboiled from noir, in noir everyone is equally dirty. In hardboiled, the world is dirty, but whether it makes a difference or not the protagonist chooses not to be, has a form of honour.

    Anyway, I’ll have to reread this, it was on my radar by coincidence anyway and you’ve really reawoken by enthusiasm.

  3. Trevor says:

    Thanks cb and Max! I’m looking forward to some more Chandler in the near future (well, there are a lot of books I’m looking forward to in the near future — but I have The Long Good-bye on the shelf!).

    Max, as for the physical quality of the book: there was nothing to complain about. It opened well! There’s nothing special about the paper, and the cover material is fairly typical. But no problems!

    By the way, I was hoping you’d comment about some difficult to distinguish distinctions. I never really knew the difference between noir and hardboiled, and you’re a better source than most!

  4. Laura says:

    Excellent review, Trevor! I’m planning to read The Long Goodbye in the next couple of months — chosen as my introduction to Chandler mostly because it’s also on the “1001″ list. My husband has been pushing these books on me for some time and I caved. We have The Big Sleep as well so I’ll probably get to it someday.

  5. Nadia says:

    What a great review! I’ve seen the movie which I really enjoyed, but I had never really thought about reading the book before. Perhaps now is the time. Cheers!

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    Chandler has always been what I call a “toboggan” writer (winter person that I am): he will certainly get you down the hill, but you do need to hang on along the way. And, as this book shows, there is always a bump or twist in the middle somewhere to make things interesting. Like Max, I dip into these iconic American writers on a semi-regular basis (let’s add Damon Runyon in since Saratoga opens this week — I’ve promised to read him again and the racing meet at the Spa may supply the excuse). One of the things that I like best about Chandler is the sense of California place that he creates — for anyone who has ever visited there, you feel as though you are walking familiar geographical territory in his books. For an interesting counterpoint/harmony to Chandler (although without the mystery/crime aspect) try John Fante’s four book Saga of Arturo Bandini ( my review http://kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com/category/author/fante-john-4/ ) — while of a different style, the two are both very good writers and bring to life both interesting characters and a very interesting part of America. They both write books of similar length — my plan is to alternate them when I next dip into Chandler.

    Max: The Folio Society has two beautiful collections of Chandler stories (13 per book if I remember right) that are expensive but very, very well done.

  7. Trevor says:

    I have The Long Good-bye next on my list, Laura. By the way, depending on what list you look at, The Big Sleep is often on the “Top whatever” book lists, even over The Long Good-bye. That said, usually people say they liked the latter more. I’m anxious to see where our opinions lie!

    Nadia, I’ve never seen the movie. I like these kinds of movies, though, so I’ll have to check it out.

    And Kevin, thanks for the great metaphor! I like the imagery, and it certainly applied to my own reading. And I also really enjoyed the way he evoked California. I don’t think I read many California books, but this one and The Loved One really called it back to my mind.

  8. They’re not hard and fast distinctions Trevor, and there are stylistic issues too which are harder to pin down, but for me the key issue is whether there’s a protagonist who cares enough to take a stand. If there is, it’s probably hardboiled, if not, probably noir.

    Derek Raymond though is noir, and has a protagonist who takes a stand, so like any categorisation it’s not hard and fast, merely a useful guide. It’s muddied too in that in film one uses noir for all these sorts of tales, the distinction only makes any sense for books.

    Kevin, interesting thoughts on the sense of California, I’ve not been there, clearly I should though.

    On a slightly unrelated note, and with apologies to Trevor for the digression, I think I saw somewhere you recommend a book with a really good feel for Chicago. Does that ring any bells? I forgot to note it and now can’t recall where the comment arose.

  9. Max: If you haven’t been there, you should plan a trip. Chandler’s Los Angeles is actually Santa Monica, which is on the shore due west of central LA. The buildings on the cliff over the sea still have a 1950s Chandler feel to them — when you go inland a block or two (which is where Marlowe wanders) it is more modern but wandering around you can find places that haven’t changed.

    Fante’s LA is the grittier (but still not slum) parts. Books two and three (sorry — forget the titles now)are set down by Long Beach and the Port. Book four is on the north edge of “downtown” near Chinatown and is particularly evocative of that part of the city, with occasional jaunts into Hollywood and Beverley Hills.

    My Chicago reference was to Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March which opens there during the Great Depression: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

    I can’t think of any modern novels set there offhand — if you haven’t read any Studs Terkel, you might want to look up some columns on the internet. He is as close as the modern age has come to producing a Runyon and his canvas is Chicago.

  10. Trevor says:

    Humboldt’s Gift also has some great passages about Chicago.

    The temperature was in the nineties, and on hot nights Chicagoans feel the city body and soul. The stockyards are gone, Chicago is no longer a slaughter-city, but the old smells revive in the night heat. Miles of railroad siding along the streets once were filled with red cattle cars, the animals waiting to enter the yards lowing and reeking. The old stink still haunts the place.

    It’s strange because even though I’ve only been to Chicago once, this still struck a memory. Perhaps someone who is from Chicago can say whether it is just me feeling the language or whether that language really is just so precise that it touches upon a collective experience.

  11. Chicago, by Alaa Al Aswany – author of the rather marvellous The Yacoubian Building – is perhaps unsurprisingly set there. I haven’t read it yet though, and I’m not sure evocation of the city is the point anyway.

    Saul Bellow, well, I do keep meaning to read him. Thanks both. I’ll look into Studs Terkel too.

    On LA, I’d love to visit, but it is an awfully long way away. That said, it’s on my list of places to visit.

  12. Max: You go to Banff and LA is only another hour or so on the plane. Knowing your household commitment to wine, I do suspect San Francisco with trips up into Napa and Sonoma is probably a better choice for your first California trip.

  13. John Self says:

    For me, having read four Chandler novels, The Long Good-bye (hyphen optional ;-) ) is his masterpiece. I think The Big Sleep gets attention because it was first, and more famous, and possibly even because it’s one-third shorter. But The Long Good-bye is where it’s at. I look forward to seeing whether you agree, Trevor!

  14. Trevor says:

    John, I didn’t think you’d concede that the hyphen was optional! I’ve been very careful with it :).

    By the way, though I have only The Long Good-bye on my shelf, should I read some other Chandlers first so that I’m not disappointed in them later?

  15. John Self says:

    Probably. The other thing is that aside from The Long Good-bye, Chandler is a little like Wodehouse: read one and you’ve read ‘em all. Which is not to detract from his brilliance, but it’s awfully hard to tell them apart after a while.

  16. While to an extent I agree, I still wish he’d written more.

    The Wodehouse comparison is interesting actually, I regard both as highly skilled prose craftsmen, but it’s the prose you read for, not the plots or characters so much.

    Even though, both in fact have memorable characters.

    I just rebought The Big Sleep, inspired by this blog. Should arrive in the next week or so, I’m looking forward to it.

  17. logan says:

    i hate the stupid big sleep!!!!!!!!!!

  18. Trevor says:

    Duly noted, Logan :).

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